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Munster serve up a tantalising taste of the old Thomond Park magic ahead of Aviva roadtrip

Saturday’s win over Exeter was a special day in Limerick but the province will head to Dublin for their Champions Cup quarter-final with Toulouse.

Munster celebrate Joey Carbery's first half try.
Munster celebrate Joey Carbery's first half try.

MAKING YOUR WAY from Thomond Park towards a bustling Limerick city centre on Saturday evening, it was easy to forget that Munster hasn’t always felt this way recently.

The supporters who had just taken in a 26-10 win over Exeter Chiefs now had a Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final to look forward to. They were full of hope, full of confidence, and had been thoroughly entertained by their team at the famous stadium.

After the game, Johann van Graan spoke of the ‘tough times’ his team have endured across the season. But this was the type of day that keeps supporters putting their hands in their pockets and coming back for more. 

You could still pick holes in the Munster performance, but on a day where the province needed to overturn a five-point deficit against notoriously gritty opponents, Munster made smart decisions on both sides of the ball and added two wonderful flashes of quality to strike for a brace of high-quality tries; Joey Carbery taking a sharp Peter O’Mahony pass and shimmying his way past three Exeter defenders, before crowd favourite Simon Zebo produced an outrageous offload for Damian de Allende’s late score.

Next up, it’s reigning champions Toulouse.

“We played them last season in the round of 16 here in Thomond Park, they are the current European champions, they will be a massive challenge but I think we’ve got to look forward to it,” said Van Graan.

“We’ve enjoyed this season from a group perspective inside. I know there’s a lot of noise on the outside but inside it’s been a very enjoyable season. Everybody’s all in and from a group perspective, from a coaches’ perspective we really enjoyed the day and we set out to enjoy the day.

“We spoke about knockout rugby, that takes a huge performance and we delivered that.”

There was an intoxicating quality to the occasion, with Thomond Park and it’s surrounding areas buzzing long before kick-off, and long after the Munster team bus had pulled away following a good day’s work.

It will be difficult for Munster to generate the same atmosphere when they head to the other side of the country for the Toulouse game, following yesterday’s confirmation that the quarter-final tie will be played at the Aviva Stadium on the weekend of 6/7/8 May.

The switch won’t suit many Munster supporters, but with Ed Sheeran booked in to play Thomond Park on Thursday 5 and Friday 6 May, the ground was never going to be ready to host a big European knockout game that weekend.

the-munster-team-run-out-into-thomond-park Thomond Park before Saturday's game against Exeter Chiefs. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

And unfortunately for Munster, anywhere that isn’t Thomond represents a boost for the opposition. After watching his team fold under intense Munster pressure, Exeter director of rugby Rob Baxter was quick to point out the role played by the home support in Limerick. 

“I love coming here,” Baxter said.

“I think it’s a fantastic place to play rugby. Outside of the result, because we’ve lost here twice now, I think our players and our supporters enjoy coming to this city and enjoy the games. From our perspective, it’s a great place to play rugby.” 

The next challenge for Munster is to build on Saturday. Too often this season, the province have been inconsistent in their performances and failed to play to their potential. As Premiership and Champions Cup double winners in 2020, Exeter understand that feeling of trying to recapture glory days.

“Munster are probably… Once you win things, it’s never good enough not to win them again,” Baxter added.

You know, I’m feeling that now. We’ve won a Heineken Cup and it never feels good enough to not win it again. The same with Premierships. Once you’ve won them, it never feels good if you don’t win them again, and that’s probably where Munster are.”

Having taken another big scalp in Europe, Munster should be able to attack the rest of the season with confidence. They gave Toulouse as good a game as anyone when the French side came to Limerick last season, and have the tools to trouble them again, even if they have had to concede a certain degree of home advantage. 

The attack still needs work but across two gripping encounters with Exeter, Munster’s defensive effort was outstanding. 

“I’d say one of the unsung heroes in the coaching group, JP Ferreira, our defensive coach, you don’t just defend like that against Exeter if you’re not well organised,” Van Graan said.

And a lot of credit to him and then on top of that the players, like you rightly said, concentration. I think good decision making, when to go for the poach, when to stay out. But most importantly, one thing we didn’t do last week is win collisions constantly and I thought today we won a heck of a lot of collisions.”

That physical battle was led by a superb Munster pack, with captain Peter O’Mahony at the heart of it all. There were also big performances from out-half Joey Carbery and Springbok centre Damian de Allende, to name but a few, while Jack O’Donoghue put in another massive shift having captained the side in O’Mahony’s absence a week previously.

It was a busy, productive outing for the 28-year-old, who ended the evening as Munster’s top carrier (10), joint-top tackler (21, with John Ryan) and beat more defenders than any other player (4) on the pitch.

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“If you think if you think back to 2018, Jack became captain for the first time against Cardiff away and he has grown a lot in terms of leadership,” Van Graan continued.

johann-van-graan-celebrates-after-the-game-with-jack-odonoghue Johann van Graan with Jack O'Donoghue after the game. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“And Jack always had a good work rate. One of the things that we spoke about is you need to become the best at something. His contesting it is up there with with Pete in terms of his lineout ability. 

“His ball carrying abilities have improved so much, the lines that he ran and he carried with purpose today and then just in terms of his fitness. He’s literally elite, plays 80 minutes week in and week out.

“He’s certainly got a lot of confidence currently. And again, he is one of those guys that he just seems to always be there. I’ve played him at seven before, played at eight now and he is a starter for us at number six. So the fact that he can play all three positions and deliver a performance like that… 

“To get strapped on that ankle and just push through today, I’m really glad for Jack.”

O’Donoghue wasn’t the only Munster man to leave Thomond with a smile on his face. As the players and coaches soaked up a memorable win, Graham Rowntree was a popular target for messages of goodwill from supporters. There’s plenty of work to be done, but the man lined up as Van Graan’s successor got a tantalising taste of the potential at this club. 

Bring on Toulouse.   

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Ciarán Kennedy

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